Clement Mudiaga Enajemo is none of the two. He was once unemployed, lived on goodwill for over a year and then was a tailor apprentice for nine months.
However, this Nigerian fashion designer – better renowned as ‘Mudi’ – has been able to carve a niche for himself in the industry through sheer hard work, diligence and consistency, so much so that he can afford to go by one of his first names, which has since become a household name in Nigeria and abroad.
From a humble beginning, making clothes in a small shop over two decades ago, MUDI Africa Limited, running with a vision of being the most sought after brand name in fashion, now has offices in Dakar, Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, and of course Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
Recently, Sam Umukoro and Kolade Arogundade had a chat with Mudi at his multi-million naira Lagos, Nigeria office. He spoke candidly about his eventful journey to fame and fortune.
Sam Umukoro: Who was your first big name celebrity client and how was the encounter?
MUDI: In Nigeria, it is Richard Mofe Damijo. But outside Nigeria, it is former Ghanaian president, John Kuffour and Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga.
Sam Umukoro: But you do you also do clothes for politicians in Nigeria, clearly you have political friends abroad. Can you mention some names?
MUDI: There was a time I was interviewed by ThisDay newspapers and I dropped a few names. But then two of my clients called me and said “Mudi how come you no mentioned my name?” So if I drop two names, it means I have to mention others…
Sam Umukoro: Okay. Bu you do make clothes for politicians?
MUDI: Yes, governors, senators, ministers, diplomats…
Sam Umukoro: You once mentioned that the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of former military ruler, IBB, pushed you into fashion designing, how did that happen?
MUDI: I was working in a factory then, Bennett Industries, which was into lighting and ceilings. It was not too far away from the 7UP building. Immediately this SAP started, companies also began to downsize their work force. So about ten of us from the factory I was working were retrenched. Before then, I used to work in the finishing department because of my eye for details.
Sam Umukoro: So what did you do after the downsizing?
MUDI: After the retrenchment, I mostly lived on goodwill, while I stayed at Ketu, Ikosi, with my immediate elder brother. For about a year, I had no job. During that period, the few friends I had would seek my opinion whenever they wanted to go shopping for clothes because they felt I had a good eye for good clothes and design.
But then, there was a particular day, when the two of my friends – Emma and Tunde – were having a conversation. Immediately they saw me walking towards them from a distance, they stopped their discussion and kept looking at me as I approached them. Then Emma said “Clement, why you no go fashion school, you’re just wasting talent, see your shoe, shebi na you dey help us buy clothes.” Tunde, in Yoruba, now said “Ah Emma, na wetin I wan talk na im you talk so.”
After that discussion, I sat myself down and thought, “How do I start going to a fashion school?” It just didn’t occur to me because the ability to think, imagine and draw designs was already inborn because I was always the best art student during my school days. So I talked to my elder brother and mum, who gave me the go-ahead. Afterwards, I enrolled, not in a fashion school, but with an established tailor, because I didn’t need to go study creativity; just to know how to cut and know a good stitch. I did that for about nine months. That was how I started.
Sam Umukoro: You have been in this business for over twenty years. What are the major highs and lows of being a fashion designer?
MUDI: Let me start with the low. It was rough, very rough, when I first started. I had no capital at all. It took me about four years before I could even raise money to get my first shop. You know, in the process of saving up, other expenses keep coming up. It got to a stage where I was frustrated and I had to approach RMD (Richard Mofe Damijo). I told him, “Bros abeg, I need to open my own shop and express myself, instead of going from office to office.” He asked me to check him tomorrow, and the next, and then, “Ok, Mudi, check me next week,” until he finally gave me the money. Do you know what he said on that day? He said “Mudi, I no wan regret o, this money wey I wan give you.” I said “No, no bros, no give me the money, just hand it over to your junior brother. I will add it to the one I have,” which I did and used the sum total to pay for the shop. But I told him to pay with RMD’s name, not mine, so that it won’t seem like I wanted to disappear with the money.
It took me three months to move in after I had paid for the shop because I had to source for (extra) money to buy a ceiling fan, carpet and paint the shop.
Sam Umukoro: Are you still friend with him (RMD)?
MUDI: Yes, he’s like a brother.
Sam Umukoro: Did he also introduce you to clients that also helped your business?
MUDI: Definitely, Yes he did.
Sam Umukoro: How old were you around this time?
MUDI: I think I was around twenty four at that time. I am forty-six years old now. Although people say I don’t look it.
You have always been a power dresser. Where did you imbibe your sense of style?
MUDI: Yes. You know right from home, my mum ensured me and my siblings always dressed well. Most of the time, in those days, she took us to the best boutiques whenever we went out to buy clothes. It was not that we were too rich oh, more like average, middle class; but she made sure we dressed well. Also, my mum was among the best dressed women then in Ughelli (Delta State), where I come from.
Sam Umukoro: You now have offices in Dakar, Accra, Johannesburg, Nairobi, and of course Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. How has it been like doing business in these African countries?
MUDI: Aha (sighs), different climate, different thinking, different mentality. Nigeria is such a huge market and now I think we are beginning to appreciate ourselves more. It’s a process. You know, it grows. Take the music industry for example, today; it is on another level and people beginning to appreciate what we have. The fashion industry is also getting there, but there is so much envy here and hatred. Some people, even those who are not in the same line with you, just don’t feel very comfortable when you are doing well. If not, Nigeria is a big market for the industry.
Sam Umukoro: What about your competitors?
MUDI: I won’t say I have competition because each one of us has his own race to run. People know your signature based on what you do. So I don’t see it as competition. Although competition is good, but people know my clothes and that I have a peculiar way of cutting my designs.
To be honest with you, as am here now I don’t have a mentor or role model anymore, because I was disappointed with the lifestyle of people I once saw as role models about two, three years ago. It’s very unfortunate.
Sam Umukoro: Despite the growth of the Nigerian fashion industry, many Nigerians still patronize renowned international labels or designers. Do you feel that this is because of what Fela called ‘kolo mentality’ or there are issues deeper than that?
MUDI: Yes, there is what people call packaging… class consciousness. But most times, people overdo it. However, there are a few Nigerians who believe in what we do here. Although I am not against foreign designers/labels, but you also have to project what you have.
Sam Umukoro: Whether it’s Calvin Klein or Mudi, do you think this is more about name dropping?
MUDI: Yes, name dropping and quality as well, because for you to have a good name, you must also have the substance to project it.
Sam Umukoro: What other career path would you have taken if you had not become a fashion designer?
MUDI: I may have become a carpenter, more like an interior designer. I designed the interior of this house. It’s my initiative.
Sam Umukoro: Do you think Nigerians dress well, would you say Nigerians are stylish?
MUDI: Yes, Nigerians are stylish, dress well, and like clothes.
Sam Umukoro: Many textile manufacturing industries have since folded up in Nigeria, which has not helped the cost of production for Nigerian designers using local fabrics. How have you been able to meander your way successfully through it?
MUDI: It’s a big challenge but we have to make use of what we have on ground. Honestly, our textile industry is dead. Most times, we rely on the local Ankara, but you can’t get linen or cotton here. We have to make use of what we have.
Sam Umukoro: How can the textile industry be revived?
MUDI: It’s simple: energy. If electricity is constant… the market is there already, we have the population.
Sam Umukoro: Where do you source your materials from?
MUDI: Most times, Austria, and a few from Italy.
Sam Umukoro: Did you ever think you were going to be successful doing this and what has kept you going all these years?
MUDI: Passion for what I do. I tell people, once you have the passion for something, you will do it well. And when you do it well, you will surely make money, which will sustain you. But the passion is very important.
Sam Umukoro: What defines you taste, style and personality?
MUDI: Most times, my philosophy to life reflects on what I do. I like simplicity but with a touch of elegance.
Sam Umukoro: Do you have a favourite foreign designer?
MUDI: To be honest with you, I don’t even know the name (label) of the shoe I’m wearing because I have come to the stage where I don’t buy names. I buy what is good.
Sam Umukoro: Knowing your passion for what you do, how do you balance family life with work?
MUDI: At the initial stage, when I got married to my wife, it was tough and rough, because she was trying to understand and cope with my way of life. It got to a stage when it almost became a quarrel, but we resolved that. Now she understands that this man has to work to live. And working for me is not that I just want to make money, it is a way of life.
Sam Umukoro: Being one of the most recognized African fashion brands today, do you think your designs are affordable?
MUDI: When people say my clothes are expensive, I tell them, good things don’t come easy. If I use the word expensive, I may sound a bit arrogant.
Sam Umukoro: So, what category of people can afford it; working class, middle class or rich people?
MUDI: I put so much effort into designing my outfit; the idea, concept and finishing. Then I put the price tag. If you are a civil servant, bricklayer, diplomat or banker, you may want to spoil yourself with some good designs. So it’s affordable for anyone.
Sam Umukoro: Who are some of the Nigerian designers you like?
MUDI: I respect all of them. If I mention any particular one now, it becomes another wahala. There was one I saw recently and commended him. He was surprised; he was by far my junior (in the industry). So it doesn’t take anything from me. I is a big market, it’s just that some people are not comfortable with it. I’m a friend to all of them. I would tell you that you’re doing well if I see you. They are all doing well and I respect all of them because to operate in Nigeria, with all the hindrances and distractions, man, I respect them all.
Sam Umukoro: Every business has a breakthrough turning point. When did you get that turning point in your business?
MUDI: At times, when people ask me about breakthrough, I’ve not had a breakthrough before. It’s a process of natural growth. Let me answer it in another way, I think my plans started appreciating when I started opening shops in other countries. The perception that ‘this guy is an international brand’ was added value. Growth is a process. I’ve not taken one naira from any bank to operate my business. It’s more of personal efforts.
Sam Umukoro: Do you have factories in those countries?
MUDI: No, everything is made in Nigeria so that I can monitor the finishing.
Sam Umukoro: And how is the business going?
MUDI: We thank God. Nigeria is the biggest market. My first shop in Ghana, it took us one year to stabilize. South Africa, it took just six months and it is different from Ghana. Kenya took one and a half years, just like Dakar, Senegal. But now, all the shops are doing well.
Sam Umukoro: Where do you go from here?
MUDI: I find it difficult to answer that question. But what I do is that I wake up every day and put in my best in whatever I do and pray to God to bless my work.
Sam Umukoro: I know you have a close relationship with Uncle Sam Amuka of the Vanguard Newspapers. What role did he play in your career?
MUDI: Oh, he is a fantastic human being. If we have a million of Uncle Sam Amuka in this country, we won’t be where we are today; things would change, because of his mindset. He is such a civilized man. The first time he entered the first shop I had then; it was a one room and his house was behind it. One day, he was walking past and stopped by, looked around and at me. I could not read his mind, but I’m sure he would have been saying; look at this young man, well organized, small shop, everything put together, he needs to be encouraged. He didn’t say it out, but I was able to read that. He just said, come, follow me to my house and he gave me $100 and said I should go change it, that I dash you. That day, I felt like crying. He is such a wonderful, civilised man.
Sam Umukoro: Do you do any charity work?
MUDI: Yes, but most times, I don’t like to announce it.
Sam Umukoro: Do you have any mentees among young designers?
MUDI: Yes, they come every day or make phone calls. Even recently, when I moved into this place, I changed the entire structure, including my machines and bought industrial ones. And I gave out all the ones I had before.